Edna O’Brien: In the Forest

In the Forest: Edna O'BrienKinderschreck

A boy, robbed off his mother’s love at the age of ten. Refusing to believe she is dead, clinging to the idea that she was buried alive while she was sleeping, digging a hole into the ground near her grave in order to speak to her. A loner who, then and there, decides to become “a true son of the forest,” as his mother in a dream apparition has told him to be. (Or was that an early delusion?) An adolescent, locked up in juvenile homes, boarding schools, prisons and other institutions, abused by a priest, neglected, ignored, and locking himself off against the outside world in response. Putting to practice the one lesson he has learned from Lazlo, the boys’ schizophrenic leader in the first such institution; Lazlo who heard voices and who has taught him that the one thing that counts is to hate “them” (the grown-ups, those that stand for authority and society as a whole) with a worse hate than they have for him. A young man, unable to show any feeling other than that long-practiced hatred; acting out his suppressed emotions in violence whenever he is not locked up, unable to escape the voices now talking in his head more and more often, just as they were once talking in Lazlo’s.

And a young woman with long red hair. Maddie’s mother, raising her young son alone, breaking off all relationships with men as soon as they get to close for comfort. An outsider, only recently moved to the village. A teacher. An artist. Mistress of ceremonies at a Celtic festival, performing pagan rituals. Druidess. Mystery woman whom nobody knows with complete intimacy, maybe not even her sister Cassandra and her best friend Madge. Raped and murdered by a young man trapped between insanity and emotional deprivation, for whom she is the realization of everything he associates with the idea of the female – simultaneously fairy queen, virgin, angel, object of his sexual fantasies, whore, confidante and most importantly, mother.

This is the couple which, in the deadly dance at the heart of Edna O’Brien’s In the Forest, is locked together by fate; a fate prompted by the murderer’s delusions and rage as much as by society’s inability to deal with him. And this first murder is only the starting point of a killing spree which will demand several more victims before the young man is apprehended. – Like two of her previous novels, Down by the River (addressing incest, abortion and society’s inability to deal with either, as expressed in the trial of a girl who went to England to abort the child conceived from her own father) and House of Splendid Isolation (inspired by the Irish “troubles”), Ms. O’Brien’s latest book is based on a series of real events which deeply shook the Irish society in the mid-1990s, and which occurred in the county which O’Brien, before moving to London, used to call her home. But here as there, the author is less interested in the hard, cold facts as such but rather, in the psychology involved and society’s response to the unspeakable horror of the crimes committed; in “man and the intentions of his soul,” as she said in a 1992 article, quoting Leonardo da Vinci. And like the great painter, with an unrelenting eye for detail she takes the reader into the killer’s mind; a mind inexorably spiraling, spiraling, spiraling into a dark abyss from which soon there is no way out. At the same time, the reader experiences the terror of the abduction felt by his victims; the slow and chilling realization that there is no escape, that this last walk into the somber depth of the forest is the way into certain death, to be preceded by a suffering dreadful beyond imagination. Yet, the tale is not solely told from the perspective of Michen O’Kane, the killer and rapist, the “Kinderschreck” and bogeyman who holds an entire county at gunpoint; nor only from that of his victims, Eily Ryan and her son, and the others that will follow them within a matter of days. Thread by thread, Ms. O’Brien weaves the voices of all those involved in the events – the vicitims’ relatives, the killer’s family, the police, neighbors, women of the community and the psychiatrist who treated O’Kane at trial – into a fabric of rage, helplessness, despair and desolation; symbolized by the vast, dark, threatening forest where the first murders have taken place, that “chamber of non-light” which “lost its old name and its old innocence in the hearts of the people” when a dead goat “decomposed and stank” in a wooden hut at the farthest entrance to the forest.

In her native Ireland, Edna O’Brien was severely criticized for In the Forest, even before the novel was published, and accused of exploiting a gruesome crime for the sake of selling a story. The families of the victims of the incidents on which the novel is based reportedly spoke out against the book. But while it is undoubtedly difficult for them to deal with those events, the reaction of others only demonstrates the accuracy of Ms. O’Brien’s analysis. Yet again, the woman who to many seems to be a literary “Kinderschreck” herself, whose first six (!) books were banned because of their daring stance on women’s role in the Irish society (and society in general), and who moved to London years ago to “escape from those fields, gates, trees, woods, winds, sleet, priests, nuns and family, all of whom seemed to overwhelm [her],” as she wrote in the above-mentioned article, has held up a mirror before her fellow men; and yet again, some do not like what they see. That criticism, however, reflects more on those articulating it than on the author herself or her book. In the Forest is as brilliantly written as it is necessary – as shown by nothing better than by the reactions it provoked. A deeply disturbing book, but under no circumstances to be missed.

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